Last month our ambassador Matt Grayson headed to Spain with a group of bikepackers. Their plan was to bikepack from the Valley of the Lost, to the End of the World. Riding from Madrid to the Costa de la Muerte, to explore the history of the land. In this article, they share their experiences and a selection of photography from the 8-day ride.
A bikepacking adventure in Spain, from swanky Madrid to wild Galicia.
The route we created was pretentiously titled ‘a voyage between resting places’, because it connected two very different places of memorial. One, a gigantic mausoleum built by General Franco near to Madrid, the other a tiny, humble cemetery on the Atlantic coast, built to commemorate British sailors killed in a shipwreck.
The idea was to see the contrast between the start and endpoints. While also experiencing the rich juxtaposition created between the various parts of the country we crossed. We knew that September would be the perfect month for the trip and that we wanted to sleep out under the stars for the majority of our nights on the road. In the end, we booked one hotel. A pilgrims’ refuge on the route of the Camino de Santiago. So that we could properly celebrate the birthday of one of our group, but otherwise, we bivvied out.
Bivvying allows you to carry very little compared with a traditional camping trip.
It was sleek, modular bikepacking bags all the way instead of hefty panniers. Each rider carried his own sleeping kit, and we shared a small stove on which to boil water in the mornings for coffee. We travelled with almost no actual food. Relying on petrol stations in the morning, restaurants for a slap-up lunch, and supermarkets and campfires for our evening meals. Subsequently, we ate a lot of burnt sausages, not nearly enough vegetables, and a prolific number of ice creams at irregular times of the day. 10 am Magnum anyone?
We used Komoot to plan the route and found that to be pretty much excellent throughout. With a couple of notable exceptions where we were riding loaded road bikes up what were effectively mountain bike trails. We also did a little bit of Google StreetView to try and identify good camping spots ahead of time. It’s not much fun trying to find a spot for four adults to sleep where they’ll be undisturbed throughout the night. That also offers good shelter, wood for a fire and ideally a source of clean water, in the gloaming light. So, the more you can do ahead of time to work out where might be good to sleep the better.
This Google Maps approach led us to a couple of great spots.
With the abandoned Sanatorium at Cesuras providing perhaps the most out-there night. It was made all the more exciting when a family of wild boar trundled through the camp in the wee hours.
The first memorial, the Valley of the Fallen, is a deeply controversial place in modern Spain. Some Spaniards believe it should be torn down because it was built by the dictator Franco using the labour of political prisoners. There are still some, however, who believe in Franco as a great leader who was broadly good for Spain. And, until his remains were removed from the site in 2019 – people would still bring flowers to place on his grave. It was with trepidation, then, that we went to this vast mausoleum carved out of the mountain. With the world’s tallest Christian cross looming above it. We wanted to see the place, but not to venerate the dark history of its builder.
Moving on from the Valley, we headed onto the plains northwest of Madrid.
Here we found long, straight roads, scorched fields of dead sunflowers and a brutal headwind that lasted nearly all of the first two days. It was tough going, but funny in that strange way that unpleasant but entirely voluntary experiences can be. I think they call it Type 2 fun.
Soon, however, the plains began to rise, and after the small city of Astorga (a popular spot along the Camino) we entered the true mountains. The northwestern region of Galicia and Asturias next door is referred to as ‘green Spain’. Thanks to abundant rainfall that comes in off the ocean. It’s a fitting moniker, but it doesn’t do this oft-forgotten corner of Europe enough justice. The place is verdant, vibrant and lush. It feels at times like riding on a Caribbean island, Cuba maybe. And, the mountains, while severe, provide some epically beautiful views from the summits.
Steep climbs and accidental gravel became a feature of the next few days. Along with the frequent sight of pilgrims on their own journey to the grand cathedral, Santiago de Compostela. Our own route took us beyond Santiago, to the very edge of Europe. The part of the coastline that the Romans believed to be the end of the world.
It looks and feels like the end of the world, too, all dramatic granite cliffs and deep blue ocean spray.
The tiny cemetery that was our ending point was built after a shipwreck in 1890. The British Navy ship HMS Serpent was smashed to pieces by waves. Prompting the British press to coin the nickname ‘the coast of death’ for this bit of shoreline, with all but three of the Serpent’s 176 crew killed.
It is a sobering place to finish at. This far-off spot where so many sailors met their deaths, but it’s also inspiring – that after all this time, they are still remembered. The cemetery was built by the Galicians, not the British. And, you can still go to the nearby villages and see some of the gifts the Navy sent to say thank you for this act of compassion and care.
From the coast, we turned back to finish our journey in Santiago de Compostela. A comparatively short day of riding along roads that wind through the ancient dolmens that have stood, some of them, for six millennia. When you’re dealing in millennia, suddenly the mausoleum of Franco begins to look far less significant. Will that gigantic cross still be there in 6000 years?
Enjoy this blog about bikepacking the Costa de la Muerte? Want to try bikepacking yourself? Read our blog here for more info.